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Fatherland

April 27, 2010

I first read Robert Harris by accident. I picked up Archangel at the library a few years ago, thinking it was by Thomas Harris (of Hannibal Lecter fame.) It turned out I enjoyed his writing even more than the author I mistook him for. He has a knack for bringing history to life and choosing subjects that lend themselves to the thriller genre.

I read Fatherland back in the winter, but I feel like reviewing it this week due to the upcoming anniversary of Hitler’s suicide. The premise of the novel is not new, but his take on the question, “What would the world be like if the Nazis had won World War II?” is both realistic and entertaining. Unlike many historical novelists, Harris has excellent instincts (or a superior editor) that enable him to determine precisely the right amount of description of the setting and backstory. So many others in this genre seem to try too hard, or unable to resist the temptation to show off the depth of their knowledge on the subject, and consequently bog the reader down with a surfeit of exposition that overshadows the plot and characters. In Fatherland the setting is still vivid, but secondary to the riveting plot and fascinating characters.

The story centres on Xavier March, a jaded investigator for the Kriminalpolizei assigned a case involving a body that has washed up along the Havel. March discovers it is a high-ranking Nazi and intrigue ensues when he refuses to go along with ruling it an accident and continues to investigate after being ordered off the case. Before long the case is about far more than a drowned Nazi and March’s life is at stake.

It is totally plausible to me that history might have played out exactly as Harris has described it following a Nazi victory. Hitler’s plans for a post-war Germania are well-known, but they lead one to ponder how long Hitler’s regime could have been sustained not just ethically or politically, but economically. There were so many potential pitfalls and eventually the wheels would have come off in one way or another.  Fatherland presents an engaging and convincing scenario.

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